BACKGROUND: Last December senior Turkish government ministers and executives were charged with bribery, money laundering, and gold smuggling. The government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) reacted by reassigning thousands of police officers and scores of prosecutors. Critics of the government have more recently objected to laws that restrict the freedom of information, subordinate the judiciary to the executive, and give extraordinary powers to the National Intelligence Agency (MIT). The AKP’s opponents have appealed for international support to resist what they see as Turkey’s slide toward authoritarianism.
A key U.S. ally in a volatile region and NATO member, Turkey was until recently held up as an inspiration for democratic reformers in the Muslim world; the Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan has enjoyed a close relation with the U.S. President Barack Obama. Washington has tried to avoid discussing Turkey’s domestic developments in public, but the Obama administration is under pressure to join its European allies and partners in more openly attacking the AKP’s domestic policies.
Erdoğan’s January 21 trip to Brussels provided EU leaders with an opportunity to criticize him in person. In a joint press conference with the Turkish prime minister, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy pointedly stated that, "It is important not to backtrack on achievements and to ensure that the judiciary is able to function without discrimination or preference." European Commission President José Manuel Barroso added that, in the view of the EU, "Whatever the problems are, we believe that the solution for those problems should respect the principles of rule of law and separation of powers.” Turkey’s prospects for EU membership, always a long shot despite the AKP’s initial reform drive, have faded even further away.
Influential U.S. opinion leaders have also expressed concerns regarding Turkey’s democracy and foreign-policy orientation. Senator John McCain called the public demonstrations last summer “a rebellion against Erdoğan’s push of the Turkish people toward Islam” as well as popular unease that Erdoğan… is becoming more like a dictator than a prime minister or a president.” A bipartisan network of dozens of foreign-policy opinion makers, which includes former senior Democratic and Republican officials in recent U.S. administrations, have circulated a letter urging President Obama to adopt a more critical line with Erdoğan.
A group of experts assembled by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) have launched the most comprehensive and sustained campaign calling for changing U.S. policies toward Erdoğan. Under its auspices, former U.S. Ambassadors to Turkey Morton Abramowitz and Eric S. Edelman have been releasing a number of opinion articles and other publications calling on the Obama administration to take a much harder public stand with Erdoğan. In their view, Erdoğan’s policies risk undermining Turkey’s value as a U.S. partner through actions that weaken its democratic political institutions and thereby undermine foreign investor confidence and Turkish soft power. While acknowledging the risk that outside heckling can backfire given many Turks antipathy toward the United States, they argue that the prime minister and other Turkish elites do care about Obama’s views and have moderated their policies regarding Israel and other issues to address American concerns.
However, until now, fears of damaging the U.S.-Turkey partnership has generally made Obama administration officials reluctant to attack Erdoğan’s domestic policies. Even during the brutal police crackdown against the peaceful protests in Istanbul and other cities last summer, Obama never directly criticized Erdoğan publicly. When asked about the domestic events in Turkey, the standard White House response has been to describe them as important but insist that that the United States does not interfere in Turkey’s internal affairs. In January, White House Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes stated that the administration has confidence that Turkey, as a “strong democracy” and important NATO ally, can resolve its problems on its own and that Washington would continue to cooperate with the Erdoğan government on foreign policy. At the State Department, Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf likewise insisted that, “The United States is not and will not become involved in Turkey's domestic politics.”
IMPLICATIONS: One reason, arguably, for the divergence between the EU and the American response is that President Obama does not want to further worsen his personal ties with Erdoğan. In place of their constant dialogue a few years ago, now months go by without Erdoğan and Obama talking even by phone. President Obama placed a call to Erdoğan last week; the president reportedly reminded of the importance of maintaining the rule of law. Another difference is that the European Union has more leverage over Turkey due to Brussels’ ability to deny Ankara various economic rewards. U.S. economic aid to Turkey is much less, while U.S. military financial assistance, previously the dominant form of financial aid, has dwindled to almost nothing. Conversely, the United States needs Turkey more than the EU due to Turkey’s status as an almost unique platform for projecting American hard and soft power in Iraq, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries.
But Erdoğan escalated matters by blaming the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, for plotting his removal. A story that simultaneously appeared in four pro-AKP newspapers describes Ricciardone as telling his EU ambassadorial colleagues in Ankara over dinner on December 17, when the latest arrests became public, that the scandal would precipitate the “collapse of an empire,” an alleged reference to Erdoğan’s government. Erdoğan’s partisans described Ricciardone as participating in a Jewish-Gulenist conspiracy to bring down the AKP government and replace it with one more pliable to Washington and Tel Aviv.
The conspiracy theorists in Turkish media point to a coincidence of alleged facts to justify their suspicions—Ricciardone had warned Turkey's Halkbank earlier that it would be punished for helping Iran evade international sanctions, he met with the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) on December 17, and one of the people arrested that day was the son of Turkey’s Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan, who had recently announced that Turkey would renew its controversial gold-for-goods trade with Iran now that Tehran had reached a sanctions-relief deal with the international community. Erdoğan has voiced disapproval of the presence of Fethullah Gülen in Pennsylvania, accusing the religious leader of organizing a campaign to infiltrate Turkey’s security forces, create a state within a state, and seek Erdoğan’s overthrow from his safe haven in Pennsylvania.
The U.S. and some EU embassies in Ankara have denied that Ricciardone made the alleged statement against Erdoğan. The U.S. embassy in Ankara released a statement stating: “Allegations targeting US Embassy employees published in some media organs do not reflect the truth ... to repeat once again: No one should endanger Turkey-US relations through such intentional slander.” Nonetheless, Erdoğan publicly implied that he would seek Ricciardone’s removal from Turkey over his supposed backing of a plot against him. Obama then responded with his first public rebuke of Erdoğan, warning that such statements and actions could endanger the U.S.-Turkey relationship.
Regarding the larger protests and scandals Jen Psaki, U.S. State Department spokeswoman, insisted that, “We've expressed our concerns about some of the events that are happening on the ground directly, publicly and privately, and we'll continue to do that.” She added that, “We would reiterate that we expect Turkey to meet the highest standards for transparency, timeliness, and fairness in its judicial system.”
Nonetheless, at a January 14 meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the two ministers glossed over these issues and instead spoke about Turkey-U.S. cooperation regarding Syria, renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and resolving the Iranian nuclear dispute. Moreover, the administration has declined to punish Turkey for its circumvention of the sanctions. When the gold loophole was initially discovered, the Obama administration lobbied the U.S. Congress to make sure legislation that closed this loophole would not take effect for six months, thus ensuring no repercussions for the bank.
CONCLUSIONS: U.S. leaders will continue to be torn between seeking to sustain the advantages they receive from maintaining close ties with Turkey as an ally—that provides vital security support in a critical geographic location -- and disapproving of authoritarian policies and the human rights violations. Future developments could tip the balance in favor of a more critical approach to Erdoğan.
The U.S. and NATO military withdrawal from Afghanistan could reduce the need for Turkey’s direct and logistical support for the coalition military campaign there. The American-Iranian reconciliation, if it continues, could also decrease Washington’s concern with keeping Turkey in alignment with U.S. policies regarding nonproliferation, missile defense, sanctions, and balancing Tehran’s influence in Iraq. Turkey’s economic slowdown, which is aggravated by its political disorder that is scaring off foreign investors, will also lower Ankara’s influence in Washington— and that is something that American diplomats would be well advised to point out.
In Washington, many warn that Erdoğan’s policies could lead to even more serious political unrest and that the United States should be wary of repeating its familiar approach in the greater Middle East of downplaying human rights and democracy concerns in favor of short-term security needs and other priorities. In particular, they insist that accepting policies that risk weakening Turkey’s liberal democratic potential over the long term harms American interests.
Richard Weitz is Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute, Washington, D.C.